Multitasking Deconstructed: When It Is and Is Not Possible
Associate Professor - University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
Multitasking is a fascinating topic. Much has been written about the ability of today’s youth being efficient multitaskers (Miller, 2012). Others have noted that multitasking is not possible or greatly hinders learning (e.g., Junco & Cotten, 2012; Ophir, Nass, & Wagner, 2009). As a psychologist, one thing I learned long ago is that when it comes to anything related to the human body, it is EXTREMELY rare to find that one extreme or the other is actually correct. Another thing I noted was that it is also EXTREMELY rare for any noted relationships to be the result of something simple or unidimensional. This is true with respect to multitasking. So, can humans multitask? Well…the answer is “yes,” “no,” and “what do you mean by multitasking.” Let’s take these in reverse order.
What do you mean by multitasking?
Multitasking, task shifting, and managing multiple tasks are all concepts used when talking about multiple processes being done in the same time frame. People who talk about multitasking are actually very rarely talking about doing two or more things at exactly the same time. In my experience, when individuals talk about their ability to multitask they are actually talking about managing multiple tasks. Actually, many job announcements list, “must be able to multitask,” with this same error in definition of concept. If one is expected to answer phones, write reports, and manage projects at work, the individual is actually being asked to manage multiple tasks; not multitask. Organizational skills and time management become very important, but engaging in two or more tasks at exactly the same time is not the goal.
A second possible concept when claiming multitasking is actually task shifting. Task shifting happens when a person is attempting to juggle two or more tasks at the same time, such as reading a book, watching television, and texting a friend. In this case the individual is actually sampling from each of the tasks and then using generalization and assumptions to fill in any gaps and missed information. This can be seen easily when a student texts during class. Material is presented in class and when the student feels it is safe, takes a mental break from the presentation of the material and texts a friend. After a few seconds to a few minutes of texting (depending on the importance of the text exchange) attention is returned (shifted) to the material being presented, the individual “catches up,” and fills in any gaps noted. The obvious problem here is when a critical piece of material was presented while attention was focused on the texting. In many cases, an important piece of dropped content makes the rest of the class impossible to understand. This makes it easier to disengage from the class, text the friend once again, and as a result miss even more content. There is a great deal of research in the area of task shifting. Due to the way the human brain works, it is next to impossible to teach oneself to move from task shifting to actual multitasking (at least with any positive outcomes). Part of the difficulty lies in how the brain works. A cognitive task, such as listening to a presentation of unknown material to be learned, requires that mental processing be done to understand the material. This requires attending to what is to be learned. Once something is learned, one can move closer to multi-tasking – but not completely. For example, novice piano players must concentrate deeply while playing a given song. Once the song is learned extremely well, it would be possible for the individual to talk to a passing individual and not stop playing. However, if then given a different song, talking and playing at the same time would once again be next to impossible.
Finally, there is actual multitasking, which is not only possible, but something everyone does every day. Whenever any new task is attempted, it is at first difficult and requires significant cognitive resources. As the task is repeated, that specific task becomes easier and easier to do. As it becomes easier, it takes less cognitive effort. Tying one’s shoes is an example of this phenomenon. When one first learns to tie shoes it is a very demanding process. Later in life, this same task becomes “automatic” or “mindless,” meaning it really does not take any mental effort at all. So, it is possible to accomplish multitasking, as long as automatic processes are in play. This happens whenever we engage in multiple tasks that have been learned extremely well. Examples include walking while talking, eating while watching television, and driving while singing along with the radio. You will notice all of these examples include motor activity. That is because most automatic processing involves motor learning and a great deal of practice. It is possible to experience cognitive multitasking, but it is relatively limited. For example, a mathematician may well be able to solve very simple addition problems while explaining what items might be found inside a large department store. That said, as soon as any task gets a bit more cognitively demanding, the individual will quickly revert to task shifting. For example, if the mathematician was asked to list items that might be found in a large department store but stated in alphabetical order, then even simple arithmetic problems would be difficult to do at the same time.
We CANNOT Multitask.
As noted above, it is not possible to multitask two or more tasks when any of the tasks are cognitively demanding in any way. Attempting to do so results in task shifting, and research has shown time and again that task shifting is typically inefficient and leads to a poorer outcome than completing the two tasks in sequence. This includes listening to music while reading a textbook. If one hums along or processes the music in any way it takes some cognitive effort. Reading a textbook (for understanding and learning) certainly requires cognitive effort. Therefore, having music playing (even if instrumental) typically interferes with learning from a textbook (e.g., Dobbs, Furnham, & McClelland, 2013). If some noise is needed so that other sounds are not distracting, then a white noise generator is the best option. With respect to the classroom, it is valuable to help students to understand that texting during class is a form of task shifting, not multitasking and that valuable information can easily be lost, particularly when new material is presented quickly.
We CAN Multitask.
In some situations, as noted above with respect to procedural tasks, we can certainly multitask. This typically results from something being learned so well that it is mostly “automatic processing.” This is a strong argument for learning the foundations of the discipline extremely well. Even if total multitasking is not possible, one can spend significantly less time processing when task shifting for tasks that are well rehearsed. This increase in efficiency will allow for some multitasking. For example, I have seen extremely knowledgeable gate agents at airports carry on conversations while changing a seat assignment. Less experienced agents will gently ask to be given a minute to make the change. When discussing this concept to students, impress upon them that certain aspects of the material should be known so well that it will take little to no cognitive energy to process that material.
Consider the sentence that is stated periodically: “Students today are very good at multitasking.” My hope is that your response to this has now changed to, “it depends on what you mean by multitasking, but overall, sometimes they can and sometimes they can’t.” That said, for the most part, when it comes to education, trying to do two things at once does not work out well for the learner.
Dobbs, S., Furnham, A., & McClelland, A. (2011).The effect of background music and noise on the cognitive test performance of introverts and extraverts. Applied Cognitive Psychology, 25(2), 307–313.
Junco, R. & Cotten, S. (2012). The relationship between multitasking and academic performance. Computers & Education, 59(2), 505–514.
Miller, M. (2012). Why you should be hiring millennials. Retrieved March 25, 2015 from http://www.forbes.com/sites/mattmiller/2012/07/03/why-you-should-be-hiring-millennials-infographic/
Ophir, E., Nass, C., & Wagner, A.D. (2009). Cognitive control in media multitaskers. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 106 (37), 15583-15587.